Statewide domestic partner registry stalled in committee

By : Jamie Hyman
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The bill that would have created a statewide domestic partner registry for Florida is stalled.

The Florida Senate Committee on Children, Families, and Elder Affairs heard nearly two hours of testimony today on SB 196, the “Families First” Bill, which would have created a statewide domestic partner registry.

Although the majority of speakers testified in favor of the bill, the committee members ultimately rejected an amendment and Sen. Eleanor Sobel (D-Hollywood), who filed the bill in January, declared it temporarily postponed. The primary objection
According to Michael Farmer, statewide field coordinator at Equality Florida, the temporary postponement is a good thing, because it allows the legislators to step back and make some changes, keeping open the chance to vote the bill forward in another hearing.

Among the first speakers at the Feb. 19 hearing was Orlando attorney and LGBT activist Mary Meeks, who testified about the bill’s legality, primarily stating that the bill’s creation of a domestic partner registry does not violate the Marriage Protection Act, the state amendment that defines marriage as between one man and one woman.

“The [Florida] Supreme Court has recognized that marriage is a complex concept, it’s not just a list of rights that are conferred,” Meeks said. “There have been a number of legal challenges to domestic partner registries across the country, but to my knowledge, no DPR has been found to be illegal or unconstitutional.”

Meeks highlighted some key difference between what the bill would provide and marriage, including who is eligible for each, what happens should the parties involved choose to dissolve their rights and the fact that the domestic partnership rights are not portable.

“Those rights do not travel with you outside of the state of Florida,” she said.

Senator Nancy Detert (R-Sarasota) mentioned the different registries already passed by various counties and cities, asking which how they would create consistency should a state bill pass. Meeks replied that the state bill would prevail.

Detert was the first to point out the broadness of the state bill, and Meeks agreed that the local bills are “specifically enumerated” but the state bill is not.

“I think it would be a very fine project for some lawyers to make that list and we have some people in the process of [making the state bill more specific],” Meeks said.

Orange County Comptroller Martha Haynie testified that in Orange County, the registry was created via affidavit, with “no additional cost, no controversy.

She also talked about the civil justice aspect of this type of legislation, specifically how Haynie felt as she looked out at the crowded room while giving a press conference about Orange County’s registry.

“There were families that had been together for decades and who at last were being recognized, at least in Orange County, as families. They had their children with them. Some were quite elderly. They were overcome that Orange County was finally granting them some recognition as a family,”Haynie said. “It was one of the most meaningful and rewarding things I have done as a public official.”

State representative Joe Saunders discussed the financial rewards of a domestic partner registry, which he said positions Florida as a place where large companies will want to call home.

“Jobs are the number one issue in minds of the people of Florida. I don’t want to have to tell a CEO that wants to locate to my region that the second their employees cross the Florida state line that they are unprotected, that their families are legally invisible,” Saunders said. “This is a marketing moment. This for me is as much about jobs as anything.”

Michael Sheedy with the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops testified against the bill, saying it does blur the distinction between marriage and other types of relationships.

“In jurisdictions where [domestic partner registries are] enacted, we see fewer people enter into marriage and other rights, particularly those relating to children, are diminished,” he said.”By many measures, marriage and family are struggling, declining. By broadening definition we don’t really help that situation.”

When asked by a committee member for statistics indicating marriage rate decline, Sheedy was unable to provide any.

John Stemberger with the Florida Family Policy Council also testified against the bill, calling domestic partner registries “bad public policy” and “an incremental approach to legalizing gay marriage.”

Sen. Detert told the committee that she’s had “thousands of calls against the bill but it’s made no impact on me,” stating the definition of family is changing and she does support Sarasota’s domestic partner registry bill.

“I can’t support this bill today because it is too broad; it is like a walking lawsuit. If we put together a bill like what Sarasota did, I’m 1000% there,” Detert said. “I’m very disappointed that I can’t support the bill today.”

Senator Oscar Braynon (D-Miami Dade) urged the committee members to move forward anyway because the bill could be rewritten later. Senator Thad Altman (R-Brevard) was against the bill, saying it’s too close to marriage and he can’t vote for anything that violates the Florida constitution.

Before officially postponing the bill, Sen. Sobel questioned whether she should rewrite it.

“No one else wants to get married today except gay people,” she said. “They’re fighting to keep that institution alive.”

She said the committee could hear the bill again “with a narrow definition, a narrow scope” before officially temporarily postponing it.

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